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Some things I would prefer not to look at too closely.

A hummingbird is one.

Also, my wishes.

I want to look at the hummingbird closely, but I would prefer not to, because seeing all the tiny, exquisite details – means that the bird is not moving. A still hummingbird is dead, like the one I found on the pavement this morning. The color drew my eye – I was expecting it to be a cicada. Its upper feathers are just the same iridescent green as a cicada (the living or dead, winged cicada, but not the amber molt), and it was the same size. Which, for a bird, is tiny. I think it must have hit the glass, as I found it just at the base of a large window.

(“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”)

It cannot have been there long, because the ants had not found it at all. I carried it home cupped in my hand, its body so light that I could only feel it there because the breeze caught its small, rigid wing, so that it gently vibrated against my fingers. Still humming even in death.

At home Mark and Seth and I bent our heads over it, sadly, curiously. We marvelled at its tiny curled black feet. Its shining green back. Its neat, perfect wings and tail. The long, clear tongue protruding from the long, black beak, which seemed to say that it died thirsty. That was the saddest detail, but also the most fascinating. How else would we ever have been able to look at a hummingbird tongue?

I can’t stop looking at it, and I wish I knew a way to preserve it (that is not horrible). But more than that I wish that, like the luna moth, it would turn out not to be dead after all – that it would suddenly begin to vibrate and then we could let it go and it would fly away.

I wish so many things. I’m basically a wishing machine. And I do firmly believe that Freud is right about dreams being the expression of wishes. Repressed wishes, he says, but I tend to think that dreams can also express wishes that are not repressed – wishes of which we can become conscious, but maybe would prefer not to. What I like about dreams, though, is the intricate ways they conceal or subvert the expression of those wishes, repressed or not. I like the dreamwork. I love the ways that my sleeping brain obscures, twists, and transforms my wishes into something artful, beautiful, and clever.

Like the dream where my friend is painting a portrait of my husband, but in the portrait he is transformed into a collection of smooth stones, covered in canvas and tied with string, and I am dressed in a fox costume made out of small, brightly painted, geometrically shaped pieces of wood. Maybe I’m revealing you all my secrets just by describing that, but I certainly haven’t puzzled it out. I’d rather not – I prefer not to see the wishes too plainly.

Because sometimes there is a dream that is not artful at all, that shows me exactly what I want so plainly that my heart aches for days afterwards. That’s the dream I woke up from this morning. That dream laid my wishes so fucking bare, it was like looking at the sun. I can’t tell all of it. But I was home, in the first and maybe last place that will ever feel like home. Just when I thought maybe this felt like home, there is the dream to measure that distance. My family was there – mother, aunts, uncles, cousins. I ran down the stairs; I leapt down the stairs. I practically flew down them. Someone I loved was sitting in a chair by the wood-burning stove. By the hearth. Smiling at me with such warmth.

Fuck you, dream. I don’t want to see that. It’s a joke – a mockery. If you see what you wish for too plainly, it will break your heart. I’d rather it blur, vibrate, fly away. I’d rather see it just in flashes than in such unflinching light. The dream isn’t alive; it’s beautiful, but it’s not alive.

Sometimes birds would get into that stovepipe. We’d hear them scratching and flapping all the way down. It was a long stovepipe. Once the noise was in the stove rather than in the pipe, we’d carefully open the door, and there would be a few moments of dark grabbing and desperate fluttering and then hands and bird would emerge, tense and covered in ashes. We would carry the bird outside, deposit it confused and dirty on the deck. I don’t remember those birds flying away, but I remember the frantic shivering of a bird in my hands, and the frantic pounding of my own heart, my panic caught from the bird. I don’t remember what those birds looked like, what kind of birds they were. We didn’t look at them – we didn’t have a chance. What was important was, we saved their lives.

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A few days after our Luna moth excitement, on the same walk between school and car, Mark and I found a caterpillar on the sidewalk. Of course, given all our recent talk about moths, butterflies, and lepidopteral transformations in general, we had to pick it up and bring it home. It was quite pretty – a yellow keyhole looking design down the middle of its back, and stripes of pale turquoise and brown on its sides. I tried to identify it online to find out what kinds of leaves it would eat, while Mark kept it from climbing out of a tupperware container. It turned out to be a forest tent moth caterpillar – entirely common, generally considered pests, but nevertheless an object of interest to both of us, so we gathered leaves and sticks and made it a home in a large mason jar to observe it.

I can’t say that I ever saw it actively eating, but it did actively produce some pretty large evidence of digestion, so I suppose it ate something. Given how big it was when we found it, I figured it must be in its last caterpillar instar. On the second day it spent most of the day in the neck of the jar, only moving enough to assure us it was still alive. On the third day it started to enclose itself in the pillowy white threads of a cocoon. I was watching it as I wrote this – the caterpillar still visible inside. It moved almost constantly, twisting and squirming itself around more and more tightly within the structure it was creating out of its own body. I must say, the process did not look comfortable. Actually it looked downright painful, and wasn’t very enjoyable to watch, however interesting. From the obliging internet I know that within the cocoon the caterpillar skin will split, and the pupa case will emerge. Then, after a while, the pupa itself will split, and the moth emerge. If all of this goes well, then we’ll observe the moth a bit and let it go. In the meantime, I’m feeling more unnerved by the whole thing than I would have expected.

As I was telling my students the other day, I think Lepidoptera are incredible as a species because of the way they grow and develop. All living things grow, but not all go through such radical changes. In addition, each instar develops inside the previous one, and bursts out of it, splitting the skin of its former incarnation – which is theoretically beautiful, but rather grotesque and violent in actuality. How is it even possible that all of these instars are the same being? And at what point does one instar stop being the one that is alive, and pass on life to the next? It would be like being pregnant, but knowing (somehow) that the thing with which you are pregnant is supposed to be yourself, and that giving birth to it (to you) will mean your own destruction. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Which is, I guess, not that different from how pregnancy actually does work, except the destruction isn’t a necessity, so instead, ideally, two instars go on to live individual lives, which is awesome. But as a mother, there are moments when you marvel and also grieve that this independent little being once got everything he (or she) needed from you, but now has the whole world to learn and grown in. Then again, it is comforting to remind myself, as a daughter, that I have not stopped needing my mother, or learning from her, and she helps me grow all the time.

It’s easy to leap to historical similes. Like the caterpillar creating its next incarnation inside itself, every generation creates within itself the generation that will succeed it, and we are told we must think of the future, live in the consideration of what we are creating for our children, our children’s children, and so on.

But don’t we want to snatch something for ourselves, too?

It is painful and uncomfortable to see and feel the ideas and assumptions of one age split open by the new life that is coming out of it. It is contradictory and confusing to think that what is emerging will be larger than that from which it emerges. While we are alive, instinct moves us to nourish and protect ourselves, but instinct also urges us to create life beyond ourselves. Then when that life is created, sometimes it seems to take energy and life from us – to tell us we have been misguided, misinformed, unjustified, simply wrong. That we don’t deserve life. Often the first meal of a newly emerged instar is the now dead remains of its previous self.

I’ve been going through my own changes. I see my close community, and many other communities of all sizes, going through changes. They are violent. They are pitting deeply help beliefs – often older ones – against deeply held beliefs based on newer ideas, discoveries, new ways of understanding and living. It’s terrifying. On a daily basis my anxiety tells me that the world is ending – even though I can look around and see that it’s right here, and not so much has changed. I hope, I hope, that what comes out of these changes will be bigger, more beautiful, worth all the pain of getting to it. But the question, from this moment inside the changes, is what will survive? What will survive of myself, what will survive of my community, what will survive of all our communities?

The whole thing would seem to be teleological – working toward the end – which we see as the moth, or butterfly. But in looking into moth life cycles I learned that many moths – Luna moths included – do not even have mouths. They live only a few days, and consume nothing for themselves. They live only to produce eggs. So what seems to us to be the end of the life cycle, because it is the most articulated and (to us) beautiful, is just another one of the stages, working to create the life that will succeed it – in the world not for itself, but for the future that it creates out of itself.

That’s a lesson, if not the most hopeful one. Just as we are not the end of the unfolding of history, neither should we consider anything we’ve created as an end in itself, no matter how beautiful or productive or how seemingly necessary. No generation is in the world only to consume – we must also actively work for the future, even if it seems that that future implies the destruction of the present state of things.

Today, Earth Day, is my dad’s birthday as well. It’s easy to remember, because it’s appropriate. One of many memorable things about Dad is his love of earthworms. He liked to teach children about them, and children love to learn about worms. Case in point: Mark (little Mark) came home from school yesterday with a sheet of paper on which he had written some facts about worms.

“they have segmins. they poop drt to mack mor rich.”

He’s able to explain that rather more eloquently in conversation, and has been for years thanks to his Grandma and the composting worms she keeps in her garage or basement, depending on the season. Little Mark is well on his way to being as great a lover of worms as his Grandpa Mark.

I like worms just fine, but I tend more towards a love of caterpillars, and butterflies, and moths. I got that from my dad too, but more indirectly. There are so many things I miss about him; one of my most bitter thoughts is that he’ll never give me another book. In twenty-three years he gave me a remarkably large number of the books that have been important to me, from books I ended up dissertating about to books I’ve reread countless times for sheer pleasure. On the top of that list is “A Girl of the Limberlost,” by Gene Stratton-Porter. (Mom, apologies if you actually gave it to me – now I can’t actually remember!)

If you’ve never read “A Girl of the Limberlost” – I’m not surprised. I don’t think I’ve met anyone outside of my immediate family who has. It’s an old-fashioned novel in a lot of ways, and the world it’s about doesn’t exist anymore. The girl of the title, Elnora Comstock, lives on the edge of the Limberlost Swamp in Indiana, and collects butterflies and moths and other bits of nature to pay her way through school. I’ve read that book so many times. There’s no literary character I’ve so unswervingly admired, for my whole reading life. Elnora is good, and I wished so many times that I could be her.

Stratton-Porter was a naturalist as well as a novelist, and she describes nature with incredible detail and passion. It’s due to her, and Elnora, that I have always, always, wanted to see a Luna moth. It’s due to her vivid description that I know what a Luna moth looks like, even though I had never seen one – until yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon I picked Mark up from school, and as we were walking to our car, there, on the grass by the sidewalk, was a Luna moth.

I kind of freaked out. The moth appeared to be dead – not moving, wings a bit tattered. We brought it home, and I proceeded to tell Mark to “BE CAREFUL!” every time he touched its antennae, or blew to make its wings move. Seth could not understand why I was being a crazy person about the moth, because he just doesn’t know about Elnora Comstock and the Limberlost. It’s okay, I don’t blame him. But I wanted to keep and preserve and stare at that moth for the rest of my life.

Until it turned out to be not dead. First it twitched an antenna. Then its wings began to vibrate. And then without warning it flew around the living room. There was shrieking, and frantic turning off of lights so it wouldn’t hurt itself flying at them, and we managed to get it outside. It didn’t move much after that – it was clearly at the end of its life. So Mark and I watched it for a while longer, and I took pictures, and we put some sugar down in front of it just in case, and then I went in to make dinner. When I came back out to check on it, it was gone.

Thanks for visiting, Luna moth. You couldn’t have come at a better time; I needed a reminder that the beautiful things of this world are not all gone.

“Elnora handed her mother a handsome black-walnut frame a foot and a half wide by two long. It finished a small shallow glass-covered box of birch bark, to the bottom of which clung a big night moth with delicate pale green wings and long exquisite trailers. A more beautiful thing would have been difficult to imagine.”

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Roar!

Roar!

There were a couple days when I didn’t get much sewing done. Cutting and planning, yes. Sewing, no. Thursday was devoted to getting up super early, driving an hour to the city for Seth’s third eye surgery. Blah. Exhausting. And then driving home, and Seth sleeping, and playing every game in the house to keep Mark entertained until I could put him to bed and do nothing for a while. And not fall asleep. But for a short while that evening I went to a Clothes Swap with some fabulous women, and came home with a whole bag full of amazing new shirts! Most of them are for me, but a couple got thrown at me with the words, “I think Mark needs this.”

Mark did need them both, but both were way too big for him, so I figured it would be a perfect chance to do some redesigning! The other one you may hear about tomorrow. Today, I played with the lions!

Here’s what the shirt looked like to begin with:

Classic

Classic

Awesome, but came down to his knees. It would take years to grow into. But I knew right away it wanted to be a raglan. And now it is:

The green knit strikes again, this time as sleeves.

The green knit strikes again, this time as sleeves.

You may notice I got some cool tape. It looks cool, but does not stick – this is the only photo I could get before the shirt fell down many times.

But it’s cuter on Mark anyway. Selfishly, I got him super excited about it, he put it on, and we went to the Botanic Garden to take pictures. Selfish, because it’s so stupidly hot today. His face was dripping with sweat by the time we left. But look at the cuteness!

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To make up for it, he’s now watching a movie in his underwear. In fact, I may or may not be blogging in my underwear and a Piggly Wiggly shirt. Classy, I know. It’s HOT.

Gosh, I love that shirt. And that boy.

I have been meaning to participate in Kids Clothes Week forever! Or at least since the spring of 2009, which was when I discovered Elsie Marley (is it even necessary to link that? Is there anyone in the world of sewing and blogging who doesn’t already have Elsie Marley bookmarked?) But until now I’ve been too busy, or too disorganized, or my sewing machine was all packed away, or something.

For the last year now, though, I’ve been sewing things for Mark fairly consistently. Not as consistently as some amazing people, but I would say that at least once every couple of days he’s wearing at least one piece of clothing that I made. And they look good, and fit him and his personality, and wear well, and he likes them – which are all reasons that I’ve kept doing it. I even tackled sewing with knits! (And it was not a complete disaster.) So here I am, stepping up to the challenge, because I feel like I’m up to it!

And can I tell you about my recent victory? Yesterday I cut out the pieces for three shirts (you’ll see them soon, but that’s not the victory), piled them next to my sewing machine on my newly cleaned sewing table, like so:

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Yes, I was so happy about this that I took a picture. But then I remembered…. the last time I used my sewing machine. To make myself a dress. At the very last minute. Before I had to drive an hour to get to the airport. A dress I really didn’t have to make, but had convinced myself I did. And right when I was trying to sew the gathered skirt onto the top (it was knit, of course), I realized the machine was refusing to zigzag. Like, only picking up the bobbin thread on one side of the zigzag. To make a long story short, the dress did get finished without the use of the zigzag, I nearly had a panic attack, and it will probably fall apart the next time I try to wear it. Which will not be for a really long time, because it has long sleeves and is floor length, and it’s the summer in Oklahoma.

So yes, I remembered that the zigzag was broken. And then, like a fucking epic hero, I fixed it.

!!!!!

Did I know anything about sewing machine repair? NO. Do I now? Actually, kinda yes. The internet helped. And support from Facebook. I was so pleased with myself. I still am. This is me, being super pleased, when it was finally zigzagging happily:

Photo on 7-20-14 at 8.37 PM

Then there was bedtime for the child, and whatnot, but basically, at midnight I could not wait to start making something. I ended up sewing a whole shirt! This is my first time making a Flashback Skinny Tee, and I know I’m late to the party, but wow! It’s both remarkably easy, and remarkably fun. It turned out pretty well, with a few glitches,

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the glitches being mostly those two snags on the neckline – but since they were pretty symmetrical, I felt like I could live with them. But then (not in the middle of the night, but at a normal hour) I did this to it:

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😦

I had such a vision! This is a drawing that Mark did a while ago, that I’ve been carefully preserving for the very purpose of making t-shirts. I’ll probably have more to say about the drawing itself later – it’s a whole story. Anyway, this is NOT how I imagined it looking. I saw Meg’s post over at Oliver + S about using transfer paper, and I tried to find the same product. What I found was not what I was looking for. I thought just the image would transfer! But instead the paper itself just glues right onto the shirt. I HATE how it looks. So I’ve already started taking the shirt apart to redo it. And I learned from my mistakes, played with the coloring, added a border, trimmed the paper around it, and I think this is much better, though it’s still not my vision.

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But I do like it better. A lot better. It’s for a different kid, if that’s not obvious. And actually neither of those were for my own kid, who I have yet to get to, though there will be another green tee coming down the line. Still haven’t figured out how I’m going to tinker with that one.

Also, I think I’ve spent at least six hours sewing today – trying to make up for later in the week, since Seth has a surgery on Thursday.

Just so you know, I wrote this for my Introduction to Literature students, as our semester ends, as a kind of “goodbye and good luck,” so it’s probably more pedagogical and/or sappy than what I might otherwise have written.

Here is “Ithaka” read by Sean Connery, with score by Vangelis. (Thanks, Patrick Blanchfield, for alerting me to this craziness):

The poem begins “As you set out for Ithaka,” and when it ends, when you have (possibly) reached your destination, “you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” Two things seem to have happened along the way: a single Ithaka has become multiple “Ithakas,” and you have, or will have, come to understand what it means, or what they mean. Undoubtedly, these two things are linked. Probably, coming to understand what “Ithaka” means involves understanding that it is actually “Ithakas.” Possibly, when you understand “what these Ithakas mean,” you will understand that arriving at them is of the lowest order of importance, even if it has been your goal all along.

But to understand what “Ithaka” comes to mean by the end of the poem, or the end of the journey, we must know what “Ithaka” means at the beginning, or even before the beginning. Before this poem about Ithaka.

Ithaka – or Ithaca – is an island, an island we know about, first and most, from a poem. The first poem about Ithaka is, of course, the Odyssey. In its time, we think, the Odyssey was one of a number of long poems which we call the “epic cycle.” Several of these poems were known as nostoi. Nostos is the Greek word for return, or homecoming; the nostoi, then, were the poems about the homecomings of the Greek warriors, returning from the Trojan war. The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ homecoming, is the only one of these nostoi that survived. Odysseus’ home, which he spends nearly the entire poem trying to reach, is the island of Ithaka. It is not a large island, or a rich island. Rather, it is rocky, with a lot of goats. Still, whatever else it is, Ithaka is home. From nostos (homecoming) and algia (pain) we get the word “nostalgia” – the pain of longing for return, or homecoming. When we define nostalgia now, it is as a longing for some place or time in the past – the way things were – to which we cannot return. But Odysseus did come home, and that was the end of his story.

So, in the beginning, “Ithaka” meant “home” – home to Odysseus, where he could be, again (after twenty years) with his wife, his son, his father, sleep in his own bed. To get there, he had to make it past Laestrygonians (man-eating giants), the Cyclops (a one-eyed man-eating giant, son of Poseidon), the Sirens, Scylla (many-headed man-eating goddess), Charydis (giant man-eating whirlpool), and escape the clutches of two goddesses determined to marry him. On the way he lost all of his ships and shipmates. More than once he came close to Ithaka, only to be turned away by Poseidon, angry at Odysseus for blinding his son the Cyclops. So, yay for finally getting there, but not without a price.

Many people have wondered, since then, what it would actually have been like for Odysseus to be home after all that time. A lot changes in twenty years – people and places. After so long and so much, is it really possible to go home? It was a foregone conclusion that he would get to Ithaka – it was the will of Zeus that he should – but not at all guaranteed that it would feel like a homecoming. What does Ithaka mean to Odysseus, then? Home, family – maybe. The end of his story (according to Homer) – certainly.

But of all the people who’ve wondered how Odysseus, the wanderer, would deal with staying in one place for the rest of his life, some have asked: what would he have done if he didn’t go back to Ithaka? One of these wonderers was Dante Alighieri, who wrote a new ending to Odysseus’ story in the Inferno. When Dante meets Ulysses/Odysseus in hell, and desires to know what has brought him there, Ulysses answers (from out of the flame eternally consuming him) with a different tale than the one told in the Odyssey. This Odysseus never went back to Ithaka. Instead, he decided that his “longing…to gain experience of the world” was greater than his desire to return home. So he and his companions traveled, explored, and finally, when they were old and slow, came to the “gates of Hercules” – the end of the known world. As this point Odysseus addressed his fellow travelers:

‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the west, to this so brief vigil of our senses that remains to us, choose not to deny experience, following the sun, of the world that has no people. Consider your origin: you were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’

With this “little speech,” he convinces them to journey on, and they finally come within sight of the mountain of Purgatory (Dante’s geography was sketchy), but a whirlwind sinks their ship and they are sent to hell. Odysseus is, essentially, punished by Dante for wanting to know to much, burned forever by the fires of his curiosity.

Cavafy’s poem is a response to Homer and to Dante. In many ways, he has returned to the Homeric story, turning away from Dante’s vision (which is also, by the way, more or less Alfred Tennyson’s view in his poem, “Ulysses”). For Cavafy, Ithaka is, again, the place Odysseus, or Ulysses, or you, or we, are all trying to get to. Ithaka stands at the end of the journey – not Purgatory (which Dante’s Ulysses was trying to get to), not the Inferno (where he ended up), and not Paradise (where Dante spends his whole poem trying to get to). Still, much has been retained from the Dantean/Ulyssean voyage. “You” are advised to “gather stores of knowledge,” to become “wise” and “full of experience.” It will be better, you are told, if you prolong your voyage as much as possible, “so you are old by the time you reach the island.” With so much of the journey of Dante’s Ulysses clinging to Cavafy’s language, it is impossible not to identify, at least a little, Ulysses’ actual endpoint with the place you are “destined” to arrive at. In other words, something of Heaven clings to Ithaka – and also something of Hell. Ithaka/Heaven is the promised destination you hold out in front of yourself, to “keep your thoughts raised high,” to “stir your spirit and your body.” The obstacles you meet – man-eaters and angry gods – they will only get in your way if “you bring them along inside your soul,” if “your soul sets them up in front of you.” When you are old, when you’ve seen many things and had many pleasures, you may, finally, arrive at Ithaka. Will it be Paradise?

No, probably not. You may, in fact, find it poor. You may find that it has little to give you. Is it, then, Hell? Maybe – but only if you were expecting Heaven. Wherever you arrive, if it is not what you were expecting, can seem like Hell. College. After college. Having a job. Having a house. Marriage. Parenthood. Having a better job. Having a nicer house. And so on. We hold many destinations out in front of ourselves in order to keep moving forward, saying, “when I get there, I’ll be happy. When I get there, I’ll rest.” When we get there, often it’s not what we thought. But there’s always another destination further into the distance. All of them Ithakas. All of them, we tell ourselves, the last place. Ithaka is always the last place. The place where the story ends. The place of rest.

So what do all these Ithakas mean? I don’t know. I’m not there yet. I can only hope that my voyage will be a long one. And I wish the same for all of you.

 

612

 

That’s what this poem makes me think of: the episode of The West Wing when there’s only a year left in President Bartlett’s last term, and so everybody is basically like, “what can we do now? might as well just start moving out!” And then Leo comes back to work after his heart attack and just sits in an empty room with a whiteboard with the number of days left in the year written on it. At first it’s really awkward, but then people start coming up with things that they want to make happen in their last year in the White House. But before that it was just, “The barbarians are coming, the barbarians are coming!”

I admit, this poem isn’t really my jam. It seems inescapably political to me, and while I have a respect for political poetry, I can’t love it. I’m not sure what Cavafy had in mind particularly, but to me it works pretty well as a commentary on our two-party system. Each party thinks the other party is “the barbarians,” and nothing ever gets done, because everyone is always just waiting around anticipating what the barbarians will do or say or think. But if the barbarians don’t show up, in whatever way they were expected (actually, it’s all just people), then that’s a problem too, because “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”